--Work in the invisible world at least as hard as you do in the visible--
--Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond--
--The door to spirituality truly must be opened from the inside--
I just completed a four-week class on the life and work of Jalalud’din Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet. Rumi is not new to me. I first discovered him as a teenager and have been reading and loving his work ever since. Isn't it amazing that he remains, after more than seven centuries, the most popular and well-read poet in the world. Rumi believed that art both heals and transforms. He believed human beings were sent into the world to do a particular work specific to the person. We all have many branches and we spread out in thousands of different ways. Rumi asks us to remember “the deep root of your being.”
For me, that deep root is writing, especially poetry. I know this by my behavior. Whenever I wake up with a poem, or the seeds of one, inside my head, I go straight to the kitchen table, still in my pajamas, pull out a notebook and start to write. I keep writing until there is nothing left inside me.
Sometimes this process goes on for hours and I will end up with 50 different drafts. And once I get it right, I feel ecstatic. So happy I want to become a whirling dervish, dance around and sing. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But this is what it feels like to be in touch with the deep root of your being.
The following poem is the first one I’ve written since taking the Rumi class. I woke up with the image of the dandelion and how it propagates itself--blazing yellow flower--cottony ball tumbling into wind--and the following spring, another blazing yellow flower. From there, my mind leapt to my children, the death of their father--his cremation, his ashes and the box that held them.
It was interesting for me to see the subtle influences of the Rumi class in this poem--(its facilitator was one of those guides sent to me from beyond). My original title was “Cremation”. It didn’t feel right. The title needed to reveal something about the poem not completely obvious from the content. When I shared it with my daughter (who often acts as a midwife to me during the birth of a poem) we came to realize this one is about transformation and the fluent nature of time-- past, present, and future. It's about Samsara—the Sanskrit word that refers to the theory of death, rebirth and the cyclicality of all life. Something Rumi was very familiar with and was part of his teachings.
Where Time Touches Eternity
At the crematorium, a man in a black suit,
yellow rosebud tucked into his lapel,
hands her a mahogany box carved with sailboats.
“It’s heavier than it looks,” he warns.
“Six pounds, thirteen ounces.”
In the first photo pasted in her baby book,
she is swaddled in a pink blanket,
six pounds, thirteen ounces,
cradled in the crook of her father’s arm.
His face, often stern, is soft,
frozen in wonder as he greets the last
of his five children—the daughter who
thirty years later will mother him
as he moves from professor to toddler--
like a birthing gone backwards.
She will walk him through a meadow of
dandelion blossoms—tiny yellow suns that blaze
and bow with the breeze. For a summer moment,
she’ll pause to weave daisy-chain necklaces and
with a boy’s heart he’ll greet honey bees fat with pollen,
then turn his attention to one flower gone to seed--
a cottony bubble to carry his wishes into the wind.
Though she would always be his child,
he could no longer place himself between
her and the rest of the world, no longer weather
the first blows for her. But for seven years, she
stood up for him, believed her love could save him.
As she straps the box onto the passenger seat,
she hears his voice, as she has many times.
She now knows the dead never stop talking.
This time he says, “Let’s go for ice cream.”
She laughs out loud and pulls into Baskin-Robbins
for his favorite—a double strawberry waffle cone.
Later, she’ll find the tree where he carved their names,
scatter some ashes into the wind—her wish that he,
like the dandelion, might blow across the hillside,
replant himself, then rise up and take a bow.
John Martin Taedu Clayton blowing his wishes into the wind
We all have things in our lives we regret—grief and losses that weigh us down. My brother Grady's death is one such grief for me. He has been dead for 17 years, but it's a rare day I don't think about him, remember something from our childhood when he was the boy who loved me best. He was big brother to me, but often played the father role as well.
He was the one who took off the training wheels and ran along side my wobbly bicycle as I learned to ride. (As many of you know from my earlier blogs, our father was crippled by a grenade during WWII) It was Grady who tightened my roller skates with a key he kept on a string around his neck, taught me how to climb trees and shoot a Beebe gun. In the third grade, Grady took me to my first, and only father/daughter dance. I was so proud of my handsome, big brother. After dinner, when weather permitted, we played outdoors with the neighborhood kids until the street lights came on and told us it was time to go home.
On warm summer evenings, after we’d had our baths and were dressed in pajamas, our mother would sometimes spread a quilt on the grass in the backyard. Grady and I would sprawl out on our backs and look up at the stars. He’d point out the big dipper, but I couldn't see what he saw. He told me to connect the stars with an imaginary line, like in the connect- the-dots books that entertained us on rainy days. And it worked--I saw the big dipper for the first time.
It was also Grady who helped me move into my dorm room and later my first apartment. He used to visit me at the University of Delaware and take me out for dinner. What do I regret? My beautiful brother gained an enormous amount of weight as a middle-aged adult. He became so heavy it was hard for me to look at him. I never, not once, stopped loving him, but I did stop looking at him. And I'm deeply ashamed of that. Beneath the weight, my brother was still there. And all I needed to do was look into his eyes to find him. I miss him so much. Each spring when the forsythia bloom, I look at those clusters of yellow blossoms and think of him.
There are no streetlights in my neighborhood now. But when night falls, I often look up into the star-studded sky and imagine him there, gathering the dust and sprinkling it on the people he loves. It took many years for me to write a poem about the day he died. I will share a portion of it with you—the part where, by the magic or poetry, he is brought back to life. Ironically, I wrote it on the 17th anniversary of his death. It came pouring out of me, as if it had been inside all along, just waiting to be seen.
In the photograph that precedes it, I am three years old and Grady is six. He was a beautiful boy. Adored by his little sister. And now that he is gone, I wish I'd loved him better--especially at the end when it would have mattered so much to him. He loved his family and his church. When he was mobile, he was the first one to offer help to others. And when he was no longer able to move around so easily, he had a telephone ministry with those who were in need of a gentle giant with a sympathetic ear.
My big brother taught me many things in life. In death he taught me to always remember love is so much bigger than embarrassment or shame. None of us are perfect. And maybe it is the imperfect who are the truly beautiful people--the real heroes among us.
THIS WEIGHT I CARRY
On the March day my brother’s big heart
stopped beating, forsythia burst into
yellow blossoms outside his bedroom window
and one crocus opened its purple-petaled eye.
Each blade of grass seemed numbered as it bent
beneath black boots that marched him across his yard.
Neighbors spoke in soft whispers,
clutched Bibles fat with mercy for their home-bound
church brother. As his body was taken away,
they hung their heads, then hurried home
to bake him chocolate cakes and casseroles.
How easy it is to love what is gone.
As minutes tick back into memory, I disassemble
my big brother and me. Break us apart like
pieces of a gigantic puzzle, fragments of love
stronger than obsession, fear or shame.
When I connect them to the place fantasy and longing merge,
we will stretch our arms, weightless as wings, and fly.
Together we’ll wade barefoot in the shallow creek
behind our house in Collins Park, listen to our mother
sing hymns in the garden while sun dries our mud pies
on the flat rocks. We’ll hold our funeral processions
for dead birds, oatmeal-box coffins lined with
fragrant orange peels that linger on our fingertips.
The ebony trill of my clarinet in the summer air.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense.
From Essential Rumi
For me, as I suspect is true for many writers, I need to write about powerful experiences before I can fully comprehend them. This Christmas my son and his family from Chicago rented a house In La Jolla and we travelled down from Oregon to spend Christmas together. My daughter lives in San Diego. The day before we arrived, their father, my ex-husband of almost 30 years, was admitted to the hospital. He has been suffering from Alzheimer's Disease for several years.
December 20, 2014 – I am in the hospital in La Jolla with my two kids and their dad who is near death. He has pneumonia and a urinary tract infection. He can’t eat or drink anything without aspirating it. And he can't cough. So he is receiving no nourishment. He looks as if he weighs about 80 pounds. His directive indicates he does not want a feeding tube, so I suspect he will die while we are here or shortly after we leave.
When I stood over John's bed, he was awake and his face broke out in a big smile when he saw me. He was having a lucid day and he knew exactly who I was. It was clear he wanted to say something to me, but his voice was barely more than a whisper. I put my face very close to his and he said, "I'm sorry." It was heartbreaking, but beautiful and sincere. I told him I was sorry, too. I told him it was okay.
After the divorce, we made a big effort to stay friendly, to share holidays so the children didn't have to choose between their parents. I'm not saying there weren't rough times, there were, but something fundamentally strong and good remained between us.
December 25, 2014
This turn of events certainly changed the face of Christmas. But not in the way one would expect. In many ways, it was the best Christmas ever. John gave us the kind of gifts that matter. The ones you don't have to unwrap or open. He gave us moments of lucidity, laughter, forgiveness, reunion, memories, and his profound courage as he fought to hang on a little longer. Our family was reunited in this final act of love.
It will be with heavy hearts that David and I leave La Jolla tomorrow, but we are comforted by Hospice and the enormous support and relief they have already provided to Bonnie. She has worked hard and long on her father's behalf. He could not have had a better advocate or daughter. My heart is bursting with pride for these two remarkable adults our children have become.
It is hard to see my grown children crying as they so tenderly care for him. They read to him from I Corinthians. As I watch them, I see such love on their faces. I suppose no one can ask for more than to be surrounded by the people who love you as you pass over. At first I thought I'd be really uncomfortable here--what is my role? John and I divorced nearly 30 years ago. And yet what I see is that love doesn't die. You can get pretty angry with someone, but if you ever loved, you always will.
There has never been a time in my life when I've been more proud of Bonnie and Dave as they watch over their dad as he passes from this life into the next. Today, they read to him again from I Corinthians—such an incredibly beautiful passage about what it really means to love—and before we left, they stood together at his bedside singing acapella every verse of Amazing Grace--one of John's favorites. The halls in the hospital quieted as others stopped to listen. All I could do was stand beside them with tears streaming down my face. What a testament to the power of love. I have been blessed with incredible children and how could I not continue to love, on some level, the man who made them with me.
December 26, 2014
This morning my son and I visited the assisted care facility to say goodbye to his dad. We both knew we wouldn't see him alive in this life again. He looked so small, still, and weak. Hospice has taken over his care and no extraordinary measures are being given to keep him alive. He is fed only if he asks for food. I stood by his bedside for a moment, touched his cheek and kissed him on the forehead, whispered, "I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places." His eyes fluttered, but didn't open. I stepped back and our son moved into my spot.
When David spoke, his father opened his eyes and said, "Davey, I'm trapped in this cage," then shut his eyes again. Dave and I spent a few moments crying in each other’s arms. I told him he'd been a wonderful son and that his father had been proud of him his entire life. I told him that I saw his father when I watched David be daddy to his own small children.
And then we left the room, closed the door and walked out to the car. There were no more words.
As Rumi said, "The world was too full to talk about."
As I write this blog, propped up in bed and waiting for the phone to ring, I realize I’m returning from an involuntary, two-week vacation. What have I, who spends even vacation days writing, done during those two weeks? You’ll probably be sorry you asked. Well, you didn’t ask, but I think you know I’m about to tell you.
Nearly two weeks ago, I woke up on a Sunday morning and was unable to get out of bed. I could not make my legs, especially my right one, function. I couldn’t walk. I kept trying, but my body kept screaming NO. I was in the most horrific pain I’ve ever experienced. It was worse than labor. Well, let me modify that, it was like labor but without the breaks between contractions. Finally, at his wits end from coaxing and my screams, my husband, Andy, called an ambulance before one of our neighbors called the police. Embarrassing, right?
But there I am wheeled out my front door and loaded into an ambulance. When flat on my back and not moving, I felt fine. So I decided I should take advantage of this opportunity to do research and study the ambulance. I asked the ENT dozens of questions. What was his job like? Did he enjoy it? Tell me about your typical day. I asked about the purpose of everything in the rig. A writer never knows when she'll need to describe the inside of an ambulance. I paid close attention to what I (the patient) could actually see out the back window. I had a great view of the tops of tall pines and conifer trees, the bright sky and when we had enough distance between us, my husband in hot pursuit in our white Prius.
The hospital emergency room was a bit of a nightmare. They did not know what to do with me after the very efficient ENT’s used a sheet to transfer me from the gurney into an ER bed. Grants Pass has no neurosurgeon on call, so they became intent on getting me to stand up and walk, determined to succeed no matter what it took. It took 2 intravenous morphine drips, 1 intravenous steroid injection, and two oral oxycodone before I could stumble off the bed and into a wheel chair. I was discharged and whisked out to the car--feeling drunker than I've ever been in my life (and I’ve been known to enjoy a little wine now and then)
The ER folks emphasized how serious this could be, encouraged me to follow up with my primary (who turned out to be in Africa--but that's in the next part of the saga.) So Andy drove me back home, both of us shaking our heads at the futility of what we’d just done—the expense would hit us later. We struggled to get me out of the car and into bed. Once the drugs wore off, I was right back where I started, flat on my back and unable to get up.
On Monday, we called a Medford neurosurgeon with a very good reputation, but were told we needed a referral from my primary care physician. As you already know, he is vacationing in Africa. Making a trip there for the referral was out of the question.
On Tuesday, I was referred to another internal medicine physician at the Grants Pass Clinic. The logistics of getting me to the clinic was a feat my husband pulled off by renting a walker and utilizing one of the clinic wheelchairs for the remainder of the journey. By the time I arrived, I looked like a homeless person and probably smelled worse. No way I could get in the shower or wash my hair--and no way I cared. But I did learn something new: If you are in a wheelchair, you don't have to get on the friggin’ scale and be weighed. See, there are gifts in everything. I'm looking on the bright side now--searching out the rainbows. Thinking I might want a wheelchair for Christmas.
This doctor was sympathetic, knew what I was dealing with. He wrote the neurosurgeon referral, scheduled an MRI and gave me a prescription for Hydromorphone—a morphine derivative. I endured three more days of pain, but it was a bit more manageable with the morphine--not that I could walk around--but I could zone out in front of decade-old episodes of Law and Order and forget. I slept a lot during those days, moaned and got very constipated from the Morphine. So, now my main diet is a cocktail of prune juice and morphine. It’s a lot darker than scotch, but you can close your eyes and pretend.
By Friday, I'd developed some strange neurological things, (SNT’s) like muscles that would suddenly twitch--move around under my skin an ADHD infant ready to escape the womb. These SNT’s came out of nowhere at any time, day or night. I also had a severe, sunburn-like pain on the skin of my back—as if all the nerve endings were on fire. It was so intense I couldn't stand for the fabric of my pajamas to touch the skin. One night, around one a.m., I ripped off my pajama top (who cares about buttons) because I couldn't take the pain. Andy sat up in bed, wiped his eyes with his fists and wondered if I was in the mood. I asked him if he had a gun. He didn’t even make a joke. He knew what I meant.
On Friday at noon, I had the MRI—a wonderful experience when all your nerves are already ignited. I was listening to classical music in the white tunnel while the jackhammers pounded and my skin crawled—a surreal experience, inviting the SNT’s to return. And, of course, they did. "Don't move," the technician kept warning. I wasn't moving. I was being moved by SNT's. I feared I'd be wheeled to the psych ward if I spoke of this. So I remained silent.
After it was over, we asked them to make sure the results got sent to our Medford neurosurgeon. Apparently that did happen because on Monday an appointment was set up for me on Tuesday. It turned out I have a ruptured disk that is spilling its nucleus onto the sciatic nerve at L4 causing terrible pain and weakness in my right leg. (I could have told them that pain part) Apparently, it's a bad one, and I'm at risk for permanent nerve damage. Bottom line I need urgent surgery.
"Great," I said. "Schedule it. Can you do it now? Cut off the damn leg. I don't care what you do, kill me, but please...please...make this pain go away." The Physician’s Assistant smiled sympathetically. "Nerve pain," he said. "Does not go away. I could give you morphine and break your ankle and you’d say it’s not so bad. I could give you morphine for nerve pain and you’d give me the finger." At least the guy had a sense of humor.
He poked me with needles that I couldn't feel and tried to electrocute me (exaggeration, but it seemed like it) My right leg is pretty useless now--just drags along behind me and my walker like an obedient but lazy puppy. The neurosurgeon is hopeful the surgery will bring most of the feeling back.
The office staff tried to get the procedure scheduled for the following day, Wednesday, but Medicare requires it be done in a hospital operating room, not the surgical suite ordinarily used by this neurosurgeon and his associates--which is much less expensive and actually safer for the patient. Apparently Medicare has other bureaucratic ideas of efficiency and financial responsibility. So we must wait until insurance is approved and a hospital OR is available. It will possibly be tomorrow (Friday) but more likely Tuesday. (with Monday being a holiday) The physician gave me a prescription for a steroid pack that starts with 6 tablets first day, down to 5 second day, 4 third day, etc and you are down to zero. He said it might relieve some of the inflammation and lesson the pain until we get the surgery scheduled. Now I am on the Prune juice, morphine, and steroid cocktail, waiting for the phone to ring and surgery to be scheduled. Remarkably, I am in less pain and could actually concentrate on writing this blog about what we writers do on their days off. I hope I don’t have any more vacations in my future. Just keep the SNT’s away from me and let me write.
"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."
Every time I read that quote, I think about the concentration camp survivors we hosted during a Holocaust presentation at Rogue Community College in Grants Pass, Oregon. Most of them were quite old and they’d just begun to tell the stories they’d kept inside. I was horrified and I was mesmerized by their words, by their courage and humility. One man, over dinner at our kitchen table, said something I will never forget. When asked how his life had been changed by his years in a concentration camp where he lost his entire family, he replied. “It made me more kind.”
Stories are our conscience. They teach truth and a respect for the past. Stories are like our connective tissue, they link us to the lives of others. If we keep telling and writing them, perhaps they will keep us human. Anne Frank was a thirteen-year-old child who wrote a diary while hiding in an attic. She didn’t survive, but her words did—inspiring and haunting us for generations.
After hosting those Holocaust survivors and hearing their stories, I needed to write something—to connect in a heartfelt way—to add my voice and speak for the ones who'd died and were not heard. I needed to imagine myself as someone who'd experienced at least something of the horror. This poem came out of that need.
All night I stood waiting
for sun to fill the room’s small window,
the glass still black where I paused
looking out as if for a signal
and remembering how dawn
releases the trees, mountains and each
fence from its shadow.
Still holding the nightfall between my hands
I whisper, “It will come.”
The dark yields slowly and this day
might have traveled here from the other side
of the earth, an avenue in Warsaw and a house
where a man has paced since midnight
the musty stillness of his attic, thinking
each time a board creaked that soldiers
moved on the stairs and imagining
that these would be his last moments.
Words like moths kicked up
from the tall grass could
trace his story back to its ink.
He knows the meaning of all time is words--
those small, unstoppable sounds
that fold, finger by finger,
across our bodies.
He would understand morning
is a kind of reprieve, its slow coming
the affirmation of everything night
called into question, and he might believe
that light passes from country to country,
one man to another, a sharing
that becomes personal like the space
between the living and the dead--
that otherness inside us we never touch
no matter how far down our hands might reach.
Time has passed since we housed those Holocaust survivors. We now have a granddaughter, Shenoa, who is the age you were when you wrote your diary. I think of her, I think of you. I salute your courage, Anne Frank. The way you left a message, a legacy, a poignant reminder of what it means to be human. I pray Shenoa will be brave like you. That she will have the courage to speak her truth, that she will never lose faith in mankind. That she will always believe in the goodness of the human heart.